Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he entered the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York, awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack.

He stayed in solitary almost two years as his family couldn’t pay his bail, enduring beatings by the guards and fellow prisoners and attempting suicide multiple times. He was later released, but last June he committed suicide at age 22.

When President Obama last Monday announced new limits on the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, he began Browder’s story. The Jan. 28 executive action ending solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, among other actions, has reflected a growing chorus of religious and political voices asking for the reform of America’s prison system, and of solitary confinement in particular.

Last July, Obama had asked the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The department released its report months later and on Jan. 25 the president announced he would be adopting their recommendations.

Among these recommendations were ending the use of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates, creating special mental health units for inmates with severe mental illness, providing psychologists for inmates requiring segregation, and overall reductions in the time inmates will spend in solitary.

The concept of solitary confinement does vary among prisons, the report acknowledged, and so it used instead the term “restrictive housing.”

There are three general qualifications for restrictive housing in prisons: inmates are set apart from the general prison population, they are alone or with another inmate, and the cell is locked for “the vast majority of the day, typically 22 hours or more.”

Prisoners are put in solitary for various reasons: they pose a security risk to other inmates or guards, they are awaiting execution, they are part of a prison gang that must be split up, they are threatened by other inmates, or they have broken a specific prison rule. Or, as reports allege, they are put in solitary for minor infractions and can be returned to solitary for small offenses.

While the practice must be curbed, it can be necessary as a security precaution, the Justice Department acknowledged in the report. Yet it went on to add that “as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”

Ultimately, it is “not rehabilitative,” insisted Anthony Granado, a policy advisor to the United States bishops' conference in an interview with CNA, while acknowledging that there may be a legitimate, yet “very limited,” usage of solitary confinement for security reasons to protect inmates and guards.  

The purpose of punishment is for correction, not retribution, he insisted, citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus criminal justice must rehabilitate the prisoner, not dehumanize him.

The bishops’ conference has long advocated that juvenile offenders not be treated as adult inmates when it comes to solitary confinement, Granado said, noting that their concerns have been validated by neuroscientific discoveries. The human brain is not fully developed until about 25 years of age, and solitary confinement, if it is harmful to adults, could wreak even more havoc on the still-developing brain of a teenage offender.

While the Justice Department noted that the precise number of inmates currently in solitary confinement is hard to determine because of data “gaps”, it did refer to a survey conducted by Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators in 2015 which showed that in 32 states and the District of Columbia, 6.3 percent of the overall prison population was in restrictive housing on a specific date in the fall of 2014. Extended to the other states that did not reply to the survey, the estimated number would have been 80,000-100,000 inmates.

Some prisoners remain in solitary confinement for weeks, years, or even decades. Members of the “Angola Three,” three prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972 after the murder of a prison guard, spent anywhere from 29 to 43 years in solitary confinement.

This long-term isolation can prove devastating to a person’s health and sanity.

St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized the “social nature of the human person” in his writings, Granado said. “And when you deprive a person of that sensory experience, that human touch, the human experiences, what happens in solitary confinement … you do really see an adverse impact on persons,” he added.

Numerous accounts of prisoners in solitary confinement reveal they suffered severe psychological problems and the deterioration of mental capacities as a result of prolonged isolation and monotony.

New York City’s former police commissioner Bernard Kerik served time in federal prison for tax fraud and false statements. He spent 60 days in solitary confinement in a 12-foot by 8-foot cell. He was let out three times per week to shower, and was allowed one 15-minute phone call per month.

During his time in solitary, Kerik said he began hallucinating and talking to himself.  “You’ll do anything — anything — to get out of that cell. Anything,” he said at a Heritage Foundation event on prison reform last May. “You’ll say anything, you’ll do anything, you’ll admit to anything.”

Shane Bauer, a journalist who was imprisoned in Iran for 26 months from 2009-11 after he and two others crossed the Iran border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, spent four of those months in solitary confinement.

In a 2012 piece for Mother Jones magazine, he wrote that “no part of my experience — not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners — was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement.”

He actually hoped to be interrogated, he recalled, just to have someone else to talk to.

Bauer’s visit to a “special housing unit” at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison actually reminded him of his confinement in Iran, he wrote. At least he had windows — the cell he was visiting did not. He was allowed a 15-minute phone call during his 26-month stint, but the California prisoners were allowed none.

What are some devastating effects of solitary confinement? “The one you hear most often is just hopelessness,” Maurice Chammah of the Marshall Project, who has written about criminal justice issues like solitary confinement, noted.

“I’ve spoken to people who have been in solitary confinement and they, almost across the board, describe this sense of utter hopelessness that makes it harder for them to kind of climb out of their feelings and find a kind of way forward,” he said. “A lot of times, the suicides actually happen when people are still in solitary confinement.”

In his 2011 testimony before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, Dr. Craig Haney described the plight of inmates in California’s cells of long-term solitary confinement, saying that “prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression.”

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School over 25 years, wrote back in 1993 about the harm of solitary confinement, saying it “can cause severe psychiatric harm” and explaining that it produces a steady decomposition of the mental faculties.

The state of an individual placed in a situation of isolation and monotony can soon become a sort of mental “fog,” he wrote. Then the person becomes oversensitive to things like light and noise. The mind descends into an “inability to focus” and then a sort of “tunnel vision,” an excessive focus often on some negative thought.

“I have examined countless individuals in solitary confinement who have become obsessively preoccupied with some minor, almost imperceptible bodily sensation, a sensation which grows over time into a worry, and finally into an all-consuming, life-threatening illness,” he wrote.

Sleep patterns are disrupted as well, resulting in lethargy during the day and sleeplessness at night.

Many inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement “will likely suffer permanent harm as a result of such confinement,” he added, such as social handicaps that may prove an intractable obstacle to their successful reintegration into society.

If solitary confinement can break and permanently damage a person, and they are released back into society — as 95 percent of prisoners eventually are — it could prove a public safety threat, Granado said.

When it is used for security reasons, there still must be assurance that “these people have access to the care they need,” he added, like psychological counseling for the mentally ill to determine why they are acting out.

Prison wardens and corrections officials, having seen the practical problems that solitary may impose, have tried to humanize the practice by starting rewards programs for inmates who show good behavior. Maurice Chammah has written on this development.

The Alger Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a trend-setter after it started its own “step-down” program. Chammah, who reported on the program, said the transformation was “incredible.” Prisoners, with a “little bit of hope,” could break the cycle of solitary.

And other prisons are following suit. The executive director of Colorado’s Corrections Department Rick Raemisch, who made headlines for spending 20 hours in solitary in 2014, created a step-down program for the state’s prisons before concluding that it still took too long to move prisoners through the process. So he capped the terms of solitary confinement at one year.

Some prisons in the state of Washington have implemented conflict resolution and anger management classes into their programs for attendees to speed up their confinement period. Prisons in Texas and New Mexico, where prison gang members have been placed in solitary to break up the gang, allow inmates to be released from solitary if they renounce their prison gang.

“I don’t want to overstate the idea that the situation has been fixed,” Chammah said, noting that “across the board, it’s pretty bad.” But overall, he acknowledged, there is “more of an emphasis” on treating mental health problems among inmates in solitary confinement, a significant step forward in prison reform.

And the tide of public opinion is turning against the widespread use of solitary confinement. Although Obama’s executive action on juvenile solitary is more “symbolic” than “practical”, since there are only “dozens” of juvenile inmates in federal prisons, Chammah noted, it still marks a “major capstone” to political momentum against the use of solitary confinement, as well as religious momentum.

More and more Christians are supporting policies of criminal justice reform, such as limits on use of solitary confinement, he said. He used Pat Nolan as an example, a Catholic who served in the California legislature and a leader in the tough-on-crime movement before going to prison for racketeering from a federal sting operation. After his time in prison, Nolan became a loud voice for prison reform.

“A big part of this,” Chammah explained, is the “idea that rehabilitation and Christian ideals of redemption and the ability of an individual to be saved and transform their life can be also part of what prisons do.”

“I’ve gone into a lot of prisons in Texas, in Michigan, in New Mexico — Louisiana definitely is a big one — you hear Christian rehabilitation language everywhere,” he explained. People of faith have come to see prisoners how they used to see addicts and foster children — as people in need of redemption.

“Punishment is just and right, but we don’t want to dehumanize people and make them worse,” Granado said. “They are created in the image and likeness of God.”